Social Work: The Stretcher Bearers

At a time when it is still the professed policy of the Heath government that we should all learn to stand on our own feet, the social services, which are seen as a crutch for social cripples, are expanding at an unprecedented pace.

In fact over the past couple of years social service has become one of the great growth industries. In local government it is already a powerful factor, with budgets which can run into several millions of pounds a year, which puts it second (although a long way second) to education. The prospect is that the power and influence of social service departments will grow and that they may become dominant at most Town Halls throughout the country.

This makes a job in social service an attractive proposition. One Director of Social Services in a London borough remembers that when he was at Oxford none of his fellow students would have dreamed of going to work in social service. Now, when he goes back to the university to lecture about his job, he finds many undergraduates prepared to consider it as readily as they would the law or industry. (A Director of Social Services in a large, busy borough can earn £10,000 a year.)

Most of this has come about after the Seebohm Report of 1968, which suggested sweeping changes in the structure and organisation of the social services. The Seebohm Report came as another stage in a long, typical development. For centuries the state has had to take some sort of an interest in social casualties like the sick, the aged, the mad. The Industrial Revolution, with its increase in population and the concentration into towns, brought its own particular problems as well as the machinery to administer them. At first government interest was comparatively slight but here, as in so many other fields, the ruling class have now accepted the economy of state intervention and after Seebohm this is here to stay.

Until the Second World War social work was often considered the field of the amateur or the part time do-gooder. It has been really discovered during the past twenty-five years, as local authorities have taken over more and more responsibilities in the field. But it all tended to happen piecemeal, with the scope of the service varying from area to area and with separate departments springing up as problems came to light, with little overall strategy or communication.

Imagine a family where the father is out of work and behind with the rent, where there are a lot of children and the mother in hospital having another. Before the Seebohm reorganisation, this family might have been attended to by an army of social workers, all coming from the same Town Hall — Education Welfare, Childrens Department, Housing, Family Welfare, Home Help, Medical Social Worker.

Now this would never do, in the age of rationalisation, in which capitalism has so diligently sought out those jobs being done by two people where one would do. Seebohm was in this tradition, something of a hatchet job. It proposed that each local authority set up a Department of Social Service responsible for such work as child care, mental welfare, home helps, the elderly and the handicapped; a few fields such as those attached to hospitals were excluded. The report described this reorganisation, in established social work jargon, as providing “. . . a community based and family orientated service, which will be available to all.”

The stated aim was to set up a service which would take care of every problem which could conceivably afflict a worker from the cradle to the grave. In each case, this service would be applied through, just one social worker instead of, perhaps, five or six as before. The Seebohm Report also gave support to social work as a profession with the status and authority of a separate department and no longer as an adjunct to the medical and education services. The result has been the mushroom growth of the powerful departments, the career structure in social work, the death of the old image of the do-gooding spinster in her flowered hat and dress.

As might have been expected, Seebohm was widely welcomed among social workers. The Report’s recommendations were largely passed into law in the Local Authority Social Services Act 1969 and now it needs only a ’phone call to suck us into the great, caring, organising, providing machinery of modern social service.

All of this sounds very comforting but what of the snags? One of these is the enormous power which social workers can exert over the lives of the people they call their clients. A social worker can exercise — or choose not to exercise — influence which can affect a family’s chance of rehousing or of help with cash grants. When a child has been ordered by a court into the care of a local authority it is the social services department which decides — without reference to anyone else — whether the child remains at home or is taken away, perhaps to what was once called an approved school but which is now known as a community home.

So this is a good time to ask what it is all about. Why does a social system which is so clearly uncaring spend so much resources on apparently caring for us? All capitalist parties, whatever incidental differences they might have, support the idea of social services. In wartime, social services have expanded and established themselves in many fresh fields. It is, of course, at such times that the ruling class place special importance upon keeping their workers as healthy and as contented as possible; hence schemes like welfare food, controlled rents, subsidised prices. These guidelines lead us to the conclusion that social service can be an effective method of keeping the working class docile, of defusing their discontents and dampening their problems by giving them the impression that capitalism cares about them.

It is no coincidence, that so many social workers are to be found in courts and town halls, the very places where capitalism is administered by its laws of privilege and suppression. When the social worker comes tripping through the front door of the problem family she does not bring only material help or emotional support (if she even brings those) but also a whole lot of advice and counselling aimed at conditioning the recipient to accepting life as a misery of denial and repression in the slum, on a worker’s poverty income.

Sometimes this counselling is mashed up with a fair measure of psychoanalysis, which qualifies it for the description of casework. This can be a fascinatingly complicated and skilful process in which the elements of a dialogue may be played backwards and forwards like an endless game of tennis which is very entertaining except that the ball becomes increasingly battered and misshapen. The really dedicated (let us not say bigoted) caseworker can move in on a family living in a rat-infested slum, where everyone is sick and apathetic, and tell them in the kindest possible way that their material problems are irrelevant. What such a caseworker would really like to toy with are the parent/child relationships in the family, whether they have all passed adequately through all the Oedipal phases, whether they were successfully pot-trained.

Help with material problems can in any case have only the limited object of helping the family tolerate the intolerable. If the electricity has been cut off because the last two bills are unpaid the social worker may try to arrange the instalment of a prepayment meter, which deals with the temptation to get behind with the bills but not with the urge to break open the coin box when times are hard. In the 19th century voluntary social workers would organise mothers’ meetings where the women were taught needlework, simple cookery and the cheapest ways of making nourishing soup. Now, there are homes where women can stay with their families while they receive expert (and it really is expert) instruction on how to survive on Social Security payouts. It is all rather like the army training shock troops to exist on iron rations in the desert.

Although most social workers accept the present order of priorities, there are many who are becoming increasingly frustrated at their function in capitalist society. Some of these have supported groups like the squatters and Claimants Unions, which has the disadvantage for them that these groups tend to become respectable with time, like the squatters who have been tamed into another office of the council housing department, with their own allocations of dwellings to find tenants for. Other social workers have set up their own underground, with its own magazine — Case Con. There are Case Con groups in many parts of the country, angrily but confusedly questioning the established concepts of social work. They are aware that capitalism needs social tranquilisers and angry at their own part in providing them; at present they have no better answer than what they call “revolutionary social work”. Despite their discontent, the Case Con adherents have yet to realise that social work is essentially aimed at meddling with the problems of capitalism and that it cannot be revolutionary because it does not operate in the political field where the revolution, which will end social work just as it will end the problems of capitalism, must be carried out.

Capitalism is a social system of privilege and repression in which insecurity, bad housing, acute poverty, are continuing symptoms of a basic condition. With some perseverance and luck a worker may survive the pressures upon him and die without too many debts or other handicaps. But in the nature of the system there must be plenty of casualties from capitalism’s assaults upon us and it is these that social workers are supposed to pick up and attend to.

It is not difficult to snipe at them, as they pick their way through the battlefield with their stretchers and bandages. Yet there are positives in their situation; like the stretcher bearers, they accept that there is need and that the condition of the people they pick up is not their own fault but that of conditions outside their immediate control. Social workers accept the concept of unconscious motivation; they accept that our behaviour has been largely fashioned for us by the situation in which we find ourselves. They also accept that social casualties should not be left in distress, that they are a communal responsibility.

Because of this, social workers have something to offer in terms of tolerance, co-operativeness and concern. Is it too optimistic, to see hope in the fact that these will be the accepted attitudes in the society of the future, when the social carnage of capitalism is an ugly memory.


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